Women in Entrepreneurship: Tiffany Yu On The Importance Of Rebranding Disability And Owning Your Own Narrative

What if we framed disability in terms of identity? In terms of actually owning our own narratives? In terms of really seeing that there is power and pride within this identity group? What would that look like?

Tiffany Yu is much more than a survivor and a fighter. She is driven and clear about her intentions on how people with disabilities should be perceived by the masses. “I  guess there‘s a part of me that would love to get to a point where I can tell you that I‘m disabled and you will hear it the same way as any other identity group.” Tiffany is a speaker, social impact entrepreneur, diversity & inclusion community builder, and inclusion and empowerment advocate. As CEO & Founder of Diversability and the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, Tiffany aims to bridge a gap that enables communication and mutual understanding of how we perceive each other’s differences. Diversability isn’t just a platform to start discussions, it builds communities and allows anyone who grew up differently to voice their experiences. Going beyond that, the organization has also started hubs and granted community projects. Sometimes Tiffany herself is still in disbelief that she runs a company about getting people to talk to each other. In our interview, she tells us her story and what impacted her to create Diversability.  

Bih: Thank you for joining us in this interview Tiffany. Could you please describe Diversability and what the organization is about? 

Tiffany: To me, Diversability is more of a social enterprise that has become a full-fledged company offering different organizations the possibility of working with us. Our tagline is rebranding disability through the power of community. What that means to me is “how can we tackle the social health aspect of well-being within the disability community?” 

That means how can we tackle social isolation, social stigma, social exclusion within our community and then activate that community to go out and share more empowering narratives around disability.

B: What exactly is your role there? 

T: I actually started Diversability as a club while I was at university in 2009 and in 2015 I relaunched it. We got it corporated so now I am the CEO and founder. Ours is a pretty small team, but we have for example a distributed network of a lot of people with and without disabilities for part of our communities.

B: What made you focus on specifically the disabled communities and not other social groups? 

T: This is kind of a long-winded story, but in 1997 I was involved in a car accident with my dad, who passed away and I acquired a pretty severe nerve injury in my right arm called brachial plexus palsy. It was a very traumatic and tragic event, and I spent that time not really knowing how to adjust or talk about the event. After about ten years I looked back at my life and I felt somewhat like a hollow shell and a victim of my own story because of what had happened. In my senior year of University I was then introduced to something called the big eight aspects of social identity. The three models that frame disability seem to be rooted by some non-disabled person who determines how we should be talking about ourselves. 

But what if we framed disability in terms of identity? In terms of actually owning our own narratives? In terms of really seeing that there is power and pride within this identity group? What would that look like? The spark for me there was how I could redefine my own narrative that isn't framed in terms of being a victim or feeling ashamed. 

B: Would you categorize your job as social work or is there much more to what you are building with Diversability? 

T: It‘s interesting because I can‘t imagine doing social impact work where I am not a beneficiary of what I‘m doing. I think that‘s what makes this unique, in the sense that the work I am doing benefits not only me but others in the disability community. What we‘re doing is we‘re figuring out any way to tackle (disability) bias so that we can facilitate face-to-face conversations between disabled and non-disabled people. 

B: Some people may feel awkward or adamant to talk openly about disabilities or handicaps. How do you reach out to them?

T: I have found that how we talk about it and tone-setting is really what creates an environment that makes people feel comfortable when sharing. Even though I pretty much just talk about my life all day long, and it can get tiring at times, it reminds me how much I need to show up and bring this vulnerability around identities to more circles where that isn't happening.

B: Diversability has been making strides at various events and conferences. How did you manage to grow it since it’s founding years? 

T: I think in terms of growth Diversability‘s trajectory has really been aligned with my own personal development. When we started in 2009 I had never spoken publicly about my accident. People described what we were doing as really radical because they couldn‘t understand how we were taking this isolating experience and building a community around it and how pride could be associated with disability. We‘re still making progress but I will acknowledge that things are much better and people are more aware but there‘s still a long way to go.

B: Does the brand plan on only being active in the US or do you hope to expand to other countries as well?

T: If there are disability conversations that are happening that are unaffiliated with our brand I want to celebrate those too. We’ve got a lot of interests from people in Australia and I’d refer them to our online community. We have also started dipping our toe into other aspects of diversability, where we feel we can make an impact. The ultimate goal for me is “how much noise can we make through diversability”. 

B: Esyvte focuses on confidence, especially for career-oriented young women. In your opinion what does it take to build a strong character without relying on another’s opinion?

T: As Liz Jackson said, “we are the original life-hackers”. Disabled people have had to adapt to figure stuff out and to navigate this world. I don’t know how that can be seen as lacking character. People who are the bravest and the most courageous acknowledge the stories that they’re telling themselves. So when I think about what builds character it’s the stories that we’re telling ourselves. Are we a victim in that story, a survivor or a warrior? What role are we playing in our own narrative? Acknowledging that I am a work in progress and trying to show up in the world as authentically as possible is what builds a strong character for me.

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